The spare hospital furnishings in the private room where my brother Emmanuel died were a luxury in comparison to the general wards at Mulago national referral hospital in Kampala, where hapless patients lay waiting for treatment. When I had stripped my mind of all the memories of his death, it was the stench of the hospital that remained. Nauseating smells that made me think of untreated wounds oozing with blood and pus; unwashed linen soaked in urine. The toilets could be accurately located from the overwhelming odor of the urinals and bowls that had not been flushed for days. My brother refused to use them and for as long as his strength matched his pride, he asked someone to drive him the short distance to our home in Nakasero so that he could use the clean toilet there. Soon he was too weak to move from his bed and suffered the humiliation of using the bed pan.
I had not noticed how thin he was until he extended his bony hand in greeting. His large eyes now seemed to be popping out of his skull. His fair skin seemed translucent and even more delicate than that of my baby, Lionel. Emmanuel had always been of slight build and his weight loss had not been noticeable until he was skin and bones. He was a twenty-two year old medical student with one year left to complete his degree and become a doctor like Uncle John, my paternal Uncle whom he resembled physically and aspired to imitate in everything. Now here he was lying as a patient in the hospital where he normally wore a white gown and followed doctors around learning and preparing to become one. They did not seem to know what ailed him and my father grew impatient with this diagnosis and that misdiagnosis as his son withered and writhed in pain.
One day my father slapped a nurse in frustration and was promptly arrested and walked to the nearby Wandegeya police station. He had been trying to evacuate Emmanuel to a hospital in London but the doctors said he was too weak to travel. The medicines that were needed were in short supply and everyone was getting desperate. When my father was jailed it seemed like a bad omen. I rushed home to tell my mother what had happened. She had left his bedside for lunch before returning to him and had missed the slapping incident. When I hurried in breathless, she thought my brother was dead and the news of my father being in jail was a relief, a minor nuisance. She would not be bothered with the details of father’s jailing and after telling me to tell his lawyer, Uncle Yusuf Kagumire, what had happened, she rushed back to sit by my brother’s death bed.
He deteriorated so fast and in one week the drip bottles that were emptied into his body through his wiry arm had no impact on his condition. The pain was too much, could they not at least have controlled the pain, I wondered?
At about 1:00 am in the night I heard the familiar honk of my father’s Peugeot pick-up truck at the gate and I knew at once that Emmanuel was dead. My brother Andrew who had recently returned from fighting a war alongside Museveni’s guerillas; walked in and confirmed the news of Emmanuel’s death. Now that he had died they seemed sure of his ailment- Hepatitis B. It didn't matter anymore.
My first reaction was relief. The pain had to end somehow and if death freed him from that excruciating pain then death was the better option. It took a while to register that I would not be seeing him again, that he would be sealed in a coffin, interred in the ground and that my brother was gone for good. Even when I went to the mortuary to view his body, I felt nothing. He lay on the mortuary floor at the medical school, not the regular mortuary where other dead people were taken at the rear end of the hospital. I was angered that they would place his body on the floor while a dead Frenchman, killed by unknown gunmen the night before; lay on the only gurney in the room. Was there no end to the inferiority complex that plagued Africans? Even in death they were discriminating against their own. My misdirected anger enabled me to look at my brother’s body without feeling.
They had opened his head and stitched it back together again. I saw the crude stitches on his forehead and wondered whether they had not killed him again by doing that. Now he was surely dead. Later I learnt that they had also opened his chest and abdomen but I never saw those stitches because someone had dressed him up before I arrived. He was an organs donor and the mortician had handed over the parts that the medical school needed and left us this shell to bury.
I recalled a conversation we had a while back. We were having lunch at home when he started talking about his anatomy class. He complained that he had been given the cadaver of a very old man to dissect and he could not find the old man’s veins. I was nauseated and fled the dining table fighting the urge to vomit and he grinned mischievously knowing he had scored one against me. He could not have imagined that he would be at the other end of a dissecting knife in a few months.
For as long as I could remember I was afraid of death. I feared that it would hurt so much and then it would be dark, cold and lonely. My fears had always been in direct contradiction of my mother’s hopes of passage to a beautiful place where the streets are paved in gold and angels sing sweet melodies in God’s praise. Heaven was both mystical and mythical when I was 20. I wanted so much to believe in heaven when my brother died but I was not sure. One of Emmanuel’s atheist friends assured me that his body would rot and be recycled into the earth by worms. He told me not to fantasize about life after death because there was none. I did not know whether to hate him for painting such a lurid picture of death when my brother was fresh in the grave or whether to thank him for dispelling my fantasies.
When death finally knocked on our door that 23rd day of March in 1986, I was numb with shock and pain but I do not recall being afraid. The fear that I had lived with through his illness that he might die, the cold sweats at night all disappeared in the bustle of funeral arrangements. After the burial when mourners left the graveside, the fear returned. A fresh new fear of not knowing what could happen tomorrow. And with the fear came a terrible sense of loss, a pain so deep it was indescribable. I could not find words to describe it but easily recognized it in my mother’s eyes and my father’s stoop.
At 50 I know that death is a rite of passage as inevitable as birth itself yet it still breaks my heart when 30 years on another family loses a loved one in the same hospital for lack of medicine and equipment that is easily accessible in countries right next door.